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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Losing Track of Student Loans Can Wreak Havoc On Your Personal Finances

While having a big family is a wonderful blessing in and of itself, it’s especially rewarding during tax season. Don’t get me wrong; I value my family infinitely more than a tax refund, but it feels good to know that my commitment to my marriage and children is recognized by our government when tax time rolls around. We had twins last year, so when my husband and I realized that we would get a Child Tax Credit for both of them, we thought that was pretty nice. After deductions, we expected a return in the thousands, so we were happy campers.

During that same time, however, we were dealing with a frustrating issue that did not put smiles on our faces at all. Somehow, when I consolidated my federal student loans, one of them was not included. I didn’t understand how it could have happened, considering how informed the consolidation company was. Loan consolidators do all of the hard work for you - they call you out of the blue, offering to make your life easier by combining your student loans with a great interest rate and anything else you need, including forbearances. As they are explaining everything to you at the speed of light, they list all of your outstanding loans and help you to understand why making one easy monthly payment would ease your anxieties about student loan debt. They’re right; it does. So, I agreed with them and consolidated my loans. They reviewed the information with me again, reading back the information on each smaller loan that would be merged together into the big loan. So, I thought everything was taken care of.

And then we found the one that got away.

Actually, the one that got away found us; once the creditor discovered I had moved and gotten married, they politely called to let me know that I owed them money for a small student loan. It took a while to figure out what happened, but when we did, my heart sank. I was so young and I took out so many small loans while I was in school that I hadn’t been keeping track of them properly. So, when the consolidators did not have their facts and figures right, I should have been able to correct them, but I wasn‘t. I ended up with a defaulted loan because it went unpaid and unnoticed for quite some time. As many young Americans know, having a student loan in default is guaranteed to bring a lot of unwanted phone calls, anxiety, and grief that we did not want. One artist was so encumbered by Sallie Mae that he wrote a song about it:



So, we did everything we had to do to bring that loan back to current status, although it didn't happen until around the time we filed our taxes for the year. Thinking that everything was settled, we filed and waited, only to learn that the creditor had not reported the updated status of the loan, so our entire federal refund would be garnished to settle the debt.

Needless to say, that knocked the wind out of my sail.

Lots of people depend on their federal tax returns each year to cover large expenses or to revive their personal finances. However, outstanding student loans, if they are not current or at least in forbearance, can cause your federal income tax refund to be garnished. Although what we lost was actually enough to pay off the debt and would release us from it, we couldn‘t help but feel blindsided. Our tax preparer told us that we could have appealed the situation, considering that the return was garnished unnecessarily. We decided to just let it go. Although we mourned the loss of our beloved tax return, debt freedom, much like family, is simply too great a commitment to take lightly.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

After 9/11 Creditors Told Me, "There's Nothing We Can Do"

My husband worked on the 81st floor of Tower One in the World Trade Center for a company called Network Plus. On September 11th his entire office managed to climb down all 81 flights of stairs and escape just minutes before the buildings started to collapse. His boss guided the entire team of salespeople down and encouraged my husband to continue when he felt tired. At one point my husband’s boss even left the team in order to help carry a woman in a wheelchair down the stairs to safety. Miraculously, she survived as did everyone in my husband’s company. As the highest office to have every member survive, Oprah Winfrey even had them appear on her show.


The ordeal was stressful enough for us to deal with, and after a few weeks passed the company he worked for went out of business. They tried to survive by relocating but the entire city was in such turmoil that the company simply couldn’t make it work. I realized that my husband was the bread winner and I had no idea how we were going to pay for our bills. We had managed to accrue quite a lot of credit card debt and now had only my small teacher’s salary to pay for it all. As the bills continued to pile up I started to make phone calls to the credit card companies with the hopes of working out a payment plan. What ended up happening instead was my filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.


Before September 11th I had a credit score of about 650 and had over $10,000 in credit card debt. My payments were always on time and I rarely had any problems. Most of my debt was due to department store credit cards such as Macy’s, Ikea, Express and Spiegel. I also had an electric bill that I couldn’t pay and a cell phone bill which piled up. The interest rates were sky high, over twenty percent for each card and I knew if I didn’t work something out I was going to sink fast. Paired with the late fees I knew it would happen quickly if I didn’t do something fast. The largest amount I owed was to American Express and since they require payment within thirty days they were the first company I called.


To say that American Express is cold-hearted would be a nice way of describing them. I explained to the representatives over numerous phone calls that I wasn’t looking to get out of paying the $2,000 I owed them but that I needed more time than the thirty days. They could care less. They didn’t even sound sympathetic when I spoke to them nor did they seem to care about my situation. As if programmed like a robot, each representative I spoke with said the same thing to me, “there’s nothing we can do”. They would take nothing less than the full amount owed and as long as I didn’t pay it the late fees would continue. The late fees started to add up into the hundreds as November rolled around.


The other department stores sometimes sounded sympathetic when I told them about my situation but could do little to nothing to help me. The representative I spoke to at Spiegel was distraught to hear about my situation and immediately put her manager on the phone. He explained that there was little he could for me except to lower my interest rate from a 22% to a 12%. He waived one late fee for me but gave me no extension.


I found that no one really wanted to do me any favors at all. I explained to each one that I simply needed a two month period during which no late fees or other charges would be given to me. Even when I explained that I would be forced to file for bankruptcy they still gave me the same line – “there’s nothing we can do”.


The only company that helped me out was the bank that issued my student loans. Citibank immediately issued me forbearance for my student loans and gave me no problems whatsoever. They were nice and understanding and were actually the only company that did anything to help me during the difficult time.


My credit score began to plummet as did my credit history. After I filed for bankruptcy in December my score dropped to the low 500’s and stayed there for years. I couldn’t rent an apartment and I had a hard time getting utilities without paying a deposit. The funny thing was that my husband found a new job within months and our income was back where it was before, but none of that mattered when companies looked at my credit report.


Today my credit is back up to a 620 but is still marked with the bankruptcy. If the credit card companies had taken the time to work with me they would’ve had their money and I would’ve kept a clean credit report.

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